Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

Summary: Much has been made of Ubuntu's new Unity interface. Love it or hate it, it's hard not to see how the stripped down interface minimizes distractions and lets schools and teachers use computers for whatever task might be at hand.

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I've been using Ubuntu 11.04 since it was in Alpha testing and it's my primary OS for the various netbooks I have floating around my house. Regular readers will know that I've used Ubuntu for quite a while, whether as a server or desktop OS. I spend a lot of time nowadays on my Mac, which is great, but I can't help but feel that this latest version of Ubuntu just might be the ultimate educational desktop for a lot of reasons.

For that matter, it just might overthrow OS X as my personal favorite, but that's another story for another day. Education has more to gain from Ubuntu 11.04 than I do. Here's why.

I first tried Ubuntu on aging school desktops a few years ago in an attempt to save money with free software and extend the life of some ancient computers. It worked, but Ubuntu has come a long ways since then. And so have our users, both adult and student. We all now use Android and iOS phones and navigate an interface that isn't Windows with aplomb.

Which is where the new Unity interface comes in. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols interviewed Canonical founder, Mark Shuttleworth, who described it this way:

Shuttleworth opened by saying that the main point of Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity was “to bring the joys and freedoms and innovation and performance and security that have always been part of the Linux platform, to a consumer audience.”

In education, far more than in most industries, our users are very much consumers (or at least most carry a consumer mindset towards technology). There are many notable exceptions, of course. I wouldn't call Karl Fisch a consumer, for example, and many of the people who are using technology in really transformative ways definitely aren't.

However, our students, wired as they are, generally neither know nor care what's happening under the hoods of their iPhones and Windows 7 PCs. Unity, whether you love it or hate it (and there are plenty in both camps) does a great job of masking the inner workings of Linux that bring out the Windows fanbois like flies to honey. All that is surfaced in Unity is what you need.

In schools, that amounts to the web browser of your choice, productivity software if you haven't adopted some cloud-based alternative, and whatever educational software you decide to use. The less students and teachers see, the better (outside of courses that need them to see more or do more). The focus, after all, should be on the learning and not on whatever tech toys, goodies, or distractions are at hand.

In fact, Unity feels much more like Android than any other desktop OS before it. Ubuntu has finally stopped trying to be Windows or OS X with Gnome and KDE user interfaces and is now a uniquely positioned desktop operating system with the feel of a mobile device that resonates with a broad cross-section of users. Users will pull out their Droids and iPhones and happily move between workspaces and screens with icons organized for their most frequently used apps. The same now goes for Unity, simplifying navigation, and making for a free, stable experience.

There's that word again. Almost 6 years ago, when I first used Ubuntu in that miserable lab, it was because it was free of malware and free of cost. The malware is still largely a non-issue and the OS is still free in every sense of the word.

Obviously, if your school has mission-critical applications that simply won't work on Ubuntu, then you need to look elsewhere. However, without even looking at Edubuntu and the volumes of free educational software available in the Ubuntu repositories, most schools will find their needs served extremely well by the clean, simplified interface that is Unity. It doesn't hurt that it boots incredibly fast, is easy for users of all levels to adopt, and works nicely on machines ranging from full desktops to the smallest netbooks. No more netbook remixes, just a "unified" interface that works nicely across machines.

Shuttleworth will be the first to admit that it's a work in progress, but this is one project that has taken a major leap forward in "doing something different." Those differences can have a direct benefit to teachers and students, if they're as willing to be flexible with their desktops and laptops as they are with their smartphones.

Topics: Hardware, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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108 comments
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  • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

    Much of the hate must have sprung from the buggy betas. I only got it running when the new OS was fully released, and I love it. Massive amounts of screen space, slick animations :)
    Imrhien
    • I like it too, especially on a smaller screen. I think with time, people

      will realize that the Ubuntu team was right to break from GNOME, and really go after getting the UI right.
      DonnieBoy
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @DonnieBoy

        I disagree and many others do too. The new UI is pretty ugly and leaves most advanced users in the dark. It would be good for kids but sorry I don't fit in that category. The Ubuntu team did at least one thing right... Left the option for Classic so users with more than 3 brain cells can use something not so stupid. :) I'm glad for Linux Mint as they plan to keep the smarter UI... This UI good for phones and maybe a Eee PC 4G 7" but not a decent netbook 12" or laptop 17" or desktop. People wonder why the US is falling off the map when it comes to education... Tisk Tisk
        audidiablo
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @DonnieBoy Good that you liked. I think Ubuntu has made a cheap copy of Mac. Entire OS looks like a "Casio watch making a cheap copy of Tag Heur". I feel for Ubuntu. OS has gone bulkier and slower. Not good for Ubuntu
        krishnansriram
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @DonnieBoy

        I agree with audidiablo. The new interface is really ugly and the proportions of the various UI elements is very jarring. I also think black being the base UI colour is horrible. I wish it was white.
        andrewjg
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @audidiablo "The new UI is pretty ugly and leaves most advanced users in the dark." Advanced users that can't find the CLI terminal are not advanced users, IMO :)
        Gritztastic
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        I think many advanced users tend to forget Ubuntu is not making the distribution for them but for the less technical users. No doubt it is not perfect yet being an early release, but those that prefer the advanced user UI's to the splashy new non-tech UI's remind me of the last decade where the advanced user decried the use of a GUI at all. Or when they finally accepted a GUI, it had to be enlightenment, CDE, or X-Windows. I guess by yester-years standards those demanding the advanced user features KDE and Gnome are not actually advanced users. Either that or they are just in the old age stuck-in-my ways stage of life.
        Seriously I am all for the advanced features of these other GUI/Desktop environments. Just those that don't like Unity shouldn't bash it. They should simply recognize they are not the target market and be happy that, in true Linux fashion, it shows the flexibility that it CAN be for non-techies too.
        Viva la crank dodo
      • Guys, I am an advanced user, and had little trouble finding the command

        line and getting down to work. But, the UI is focused on the masses, and they want it simple and intuitive. This is a great first move, and we will see them refining it.
        DonnieBoy
      • I am in agreement with audidiablo

        @DonnieBoy
        and krishnansriram. <br>Instead of taking the opportunity to create a refined and more functional User Interface they have taken what has com before in other packages (Windows and OS X) and modified it to be "different", but not necessarily "better".<br><br>They still have much work to be done in that area.<br><img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/plain.gif" alt="plain">
        Tim Cook
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @DonnieBoy It takes a little while to learn, (using it now). It's just to<a href="http://www.tran33m.com/vb/">t</a>ally awesome. I've become blase about major changes like this (eg: sucky Microsoft Office ribbons that I just can't learn where things are no matter how much i use it), but Unity is really really cool.<br>Android is excellent also. I guess there is some a<a href="http://vb.maas1.com/">m</a>ount of future war between Android and Unity.
        alasiri8
    • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

      @Imrhien
      Yes this Unity interface is great, best yet out of desktop OS's, and that includes KDE, Gnome3, MacOSX, Win7. It is very efficient and looks great, and yes the slick animantions are not overdone. Whats even better is that this is the first release, it is a work in progress. Ubuntu made the correct decision.
      root12
      • Nope

        @root12

        In my opinion KDE 4.6.2 is the most functional, most advanced desktop on the planet!
        Tim Patterson
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @Tim Patterson
        "In my opinion KDE 4.6.2 is the most functional, most advanced desktop on the planet! "
        I concur, though Kpackagekit feels like a bad compromise between Ubuntu Software Center and Synaptic.
        Unity is pretty sweet though, in the final release version of 11.04(the early alphas and even beta 1 caused me a lot of grief). Lots of room for improvement though. Hopefully it'll be primed by the time the next LTS is out in 12.04.
        balaknair
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @root12
        One of the nice things about Ubuntu is that you can choose your interface. For those who prefer KDE, just go to http://releases.ubuntu.com/kubuntu/natty/ and install Kubuntu.

        We are all different and there is room for different GUI's.
        jorjitop
    • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

      @Imrhien Funny, with that sidebar I have less than I used to have. Can't find any controls and settings. Don't see any improvements at all. All that I see is an MS move of changing the locations of everything and hiding common functions. What a great idea!
      timspublic1@...
      • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

        @timspublic1@...
        If you ever log out or shut down the computer, you'll find the controls and settings menu. It makes sense for it to be there.
        pj_mouse
  • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

    Chris, Nice article.
    I have a nephew and niece (5 and 7 years old ) using Ubuntu 11.04 and enjoy greatly, no problems.
    daikon
    • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

      @daikon Thats because they are young enough and still moldable enough to learn anything. Try that with a grandma and there gonna be clueless.
      xSteven777x
    • RE: Ubuntu 11.04: The ultimate educational desktop?

      @daikon Of course I'm betting they weren't familiar with where to find all the controls, in the last release. That's the problem I have. This is an MS move, changing the names of common controls and hiding them in new places. One of the many reasons I'm never upgrading to Win7 or any other new version.
      timspublic1@...
  • I don't like Unity

    ... so I've switched my 11.04 machines to "classical (no visual effects)". When 11.10 arrives, I'll probably switch to Xubuntu, as that's closest to Gnome 2.
    Have you seen Xubuntu 11.04, by the way? Very nice indeed, with both a dock and a clickable menu.
    pjotr123